Supporting children to write through a play based curriculum

“Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write and count. It is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better.” Magda Gerber

Children in the UK start school earlier than all other European countries; but starting formal learning at a younger age has not resulted in outperformance in international league tables – in fact it’s quite the reverse. Academic evidence and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores both support starting the formal process of learning to read when the child is ready. This may be at the age of 4, but for many others it may mean delaying formal learning until the child is mature enough, perhaps at the age of 6 or 7. This does not mean that younger children should not be exposed to opportunities to learn the skills required to read and write. Our experienced educators recognise the importance of laying the foundations for literacy and do so through our child led play-based curriculum. As play specialist O. Fred Donaldson once inspirationally said:

“children learn as they play. Most importantly in play children learn how to learn.”

A child’s journey towards literacy begins at birth, but it will be several years before they are ready to read and write. We love watching our babies in nursery getting involved in literacy activities – mark making fascinates young children and they relish being part of conversations. When infants and toddlers scribble with crayons or play with their books by lifting the flaps or pointing to pictures, they are laying the foundations for literacy development. In this two-part blog we will be exploring how play naturally lays the foundation for literacy, unpicking how whilst having fun children can develop the important skills that they will need to master reading and writing when at school. There are many skills that children must perfect on their literacy journey, commonly referred to as ‘Emergent Literacy’ and this is broken down into two parts ‘emergent writing’ and ‘pre-reading’. In this the first of two blogs we will be exploring the building blocks of emergent writing.

What is emergent writing and what play activities work best?

Emergent writing is the development of the key skills required for letter formation and cursive writing, also referred to as ‘the building blocks of writing’, all of which can be developed through play. Here are some of the activities we provide at KTB Kids and how they promote ‘emergent writing’:  

  • Developing gross motor skills in the arm

Each day our children spend time in our movimento room enjoying ribbon dancing, yoga and large-scale loose parts. We also spend lots of time outside on our daily adventures where we enjoy physical activities including ball skills, beanbag games, wheelbarrow races, climbing and co-ordination activities! These, along with large scale body painting and vertical writing in our Atelier studio support the development of the large muscles in the hands and arm. Targeting the big muscles is just as important as the development of the fine motor muscles in the fingers for being physically ready to write.

  • Activities to develop the pincer grip

From our baby room to our preschool we encourage our children to Isolate their right and left index finger and to develop their pincer grip, this is the grip we use when we hold a pen or pencil to write. The fun ways that we encourage this include:  

  • Baby led weaning and food based messy plays, with foods such as peas and sweetcorn.
  • Adding large tweezers to loose parts activities along with containers to encourage children too pick up objects and move from container to container (also excellent for children with enclosing schemas)
  • Adding pegs to the home corner so children can peg up the baby’s clothes on a washing line
  • Mark making

Process art, large scale art projects and messy play are a big part of our nursery ethos and all our children can enjoy these activities when they want to throughout the day. When children mark make they are learning to gain control of their muscles and they develop their hand-eye coordination. Some favourites are:

  • Food based messy play
  • Sand play
  • Painting- including body painting, finger painting and painting with tools such as paint brushes or natural resources
  • Drawing with pencils and crayons – we don’t use pens as they are less effective for developing muscle strength
  • ‘Writing’ shopping lists or instructions as part of role play

We have a beautiful Atelier studio so that our children really benefit creatively but in addition to this space and the opportunities it brings we always ensure that a variety of crayons, pencils and chalks (and paint in upper nursery!) are provided for free access in every room at KTB Kids and for good reason. It provides children with the opportunity to create lines and circles on paper. With the letters in the English language being made up of a combination of vertical and horizonal lines and circles this is the first step in teaching letter formation.

  • Promoting touch sensitivity & getting messy!

Through sensory activities children can become more aware of how the movements they make can be controlled. We promote lots of sensory experiences within our nursery, especially in our lower nursery. Our children love getting messy and these activities are some of their favourites, which is perfect as these help to strengthen the hand, finger and arm muscles needed when they later start handwriting. Examples of these activities are:

  • Lots of different messy play experiences
  • Sand & salt painting, clay, papier-mâché and play-doh
  • Baking
  • Treasure baskets
  • Loose parts play
  • Texture process art experiences
  • Sorting

Let’s sort is one of the key elements of our let’s curriculum and includes activities such as threading beads and bricks onto a sting, posting shapes in a sorting house and ordering coloured 2cm bricks into a tower of 10. These activities help refine finger dexterity and fine motor skills both are crucial when starting to form recognisable letters and eventually develop cursive write skills.

  • Letter & Sounds Programme

As with most other early years setting here at KTB Kids we follow stage 1 of the national letters and sounds programme. Letter formation is taught through phonetical awareness along with describing how each letter is formed and this relies on children ability to listen to and repeat sounds and understanding of positional language. This helps children to be able to match the correct letter to the correct sound. Here are some activities that we enjoy in nursery that are inspired by this programme:  

  • Playing with musical instruments, matching sounds and exploring pitch
  • Experimenting with alliteration and rhyme through stories, songs and nursery rhymes
  • Going for listening walks, recognising and naming the sounds heard
  • Adapting games such as pasta P.E., human bop it and the Mr Man game to include positional instructions

Once children have mastered all these skills, they are ready to start forming letters and writing words. We always start with words of significance such as theirs and family member’s names, beginning with tracing before moving onto copying. We believe that once a child has confidence then they will fly with this important milestone. What is important is to keep it fun.

At home try writing lists when you go shopping, make signs for around the house ‘my room’ or ‘our toys’ and add signs to role play and small world play, create short stories or simple books together and explore topics or write up experiments. The possibilities really are endless when a child is motivated to write!